Fictive Mirrors, Part I

It’s true that how we see ourselves is partly a reflection of how others regard us. This truth takes so many forms, and we each have our own “aha!” moments to illustrate it. One form that interests me is how we can sometimes be braver in defense of another person—even a stranger—than we can be for ourselves.

Two years ago, the father of my daughter’s good friend, was on his way to work when he saw a vehicle in the ditch, smoke roiling from the engine. Without pausing to think, he stopped, saw that the driver was unconscious, saw that there wasn’t time to wait for professionals, freed the driver from his seatbelt, and pulled him to safety. Before police or ambulance could arrive, the smoking vehicle exploded. Our friend and the man he rescued, though, were safe.

Stories like this make me wonder about my own fluctuating level of courage and help me see opportunities for new — albeit less dramatic — ways to stare down fear. Some years ago, as a fledgling homeschooling parent, I felt a lot of fear. I worried that I’d be misunderstood or, worse, that I would somehow fail at the most important thing I had ever undertaken, overseeing the academic education of my child. But I knew that, for her, at that time, homeschooling was what she needed, so I plunged in. It was the stories of other parents, their generosity in sharing their hopes and fears, philosophies and curricula, triumphs and disasters that helped me see how creative and, well, doable (and
fun!) homeschooling can be.

These days, I rarely feel that I will crash. Sometimes, I even feel that the homeschooling venture is cruising along just fine. I am propelled forward by results, not just in academic accomplishments but in the healthy growth I see in my daughter (and in myself). And stories are the fuel.

Living in Sundog

The town of Sundog, Minnesota doesn’t exist. Or does it? I imagined it, set The Howling Vowels there, and wove the geography of my real home town into the fictional place. I did this because I wanted to be certain to be able to keep things straight as characters come and go through the town streets. I even took photographs of actual houses where I wanted my characters to reside, and used a map of my town to place the homes of the characters and primary public spaces.

It was fun to reshuffle the architecture and residents this way. If you look in the front of the book, you’ll see that the illustrator, Heather Newman, created a map with tiny, accurate drawings of each important site in the story. But something else is getting reshuffled, at least for my daughter and me: we’re starting to see glimpses of Sundog as we walk along the streets of Northfield. There is no cherry tree in front of our house (the model for the home of the Stephens family) but sometimes I seem to see our grand old walnut fold up, telescope-style, and festoon itself with gleaming red fruit.

Now that Julia and I are working on the second book, we are both alert to the lay of land for how it can be used to tell more adventures of the Howling Vowels. We see the stables on the other side of campus, for example, where in actuality there are acres of wild Arboretum. Sometimes, we even think we hear the horses whinnying. And there is that ruin of an old barn, deep in another corner of the Arb…

So maybe, at least part of the time, I actually do live in Sundog.

On the Thrill of Libraries

Today, I am taking a copy of my first published book to my library because the library director requested a copy for their collection. In the life of a bookish person, this rates quite high on the internal Thrill-O-Meter. Actually, today’s errand constitutes a trifecta of delight: to have written a book I wanted to write, to have found a discerning publisher who embraced and improved it, and to know that it will be on the shelf at my very own beloved neighborhood library.

Libraries are magic places. The internet is like Aladdin’s lamp or a flying carpet, able to summon up nuggets of information at a touch or transport us instantly to another land. A library, though, is an oasis, an Ali Baba’s cave, a place we enter and are surrounded at every turn by treasure: the colored jewels of book jackets, illustrations, and photographs; the polished gold of exquisite language that, once encountered, enriches a life forever.

For information, wisdom, and sheer fun, libraries are, for me, rivaled only by the natural world and my own home. As Cicero said, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” Not everyone can manage a garden, but we all have free and equal access to the library. I think of a library as a great horn of plenty, spilling abundance into the world. I am grateful for this civilized form of sharing the harvest of experience. And today, I am grateful to be able to offer a little something back.